More of this feminism, please – Katniss and The Hunger Games

I’m late to the party blogging about The Hunger Games but it’s such a luxury getting out to the cinema at all post-baby that I can’t help but mark the event.

We ended up seeing it by accident. We’d actually bought tickets for the wrong viewing of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which was disappointing when we eventually saw it.

We sat for a full 20 minutes towards the film’s end, thinking it must be avant garde, before realising the error. The mix up turned out to be serendipitous.

(Warning: This post contains spoilers)

Assuming The Hunger Games would be gratuitously violent and character-thin, I wasn’t keen to see it. How wrong I was.

Katniss Everdeen, the film’s protagonist played by the talented Jennifer Lawrence is a feminist triumph and a sign to Hollywood that blockbusters led by women do sell. We left the theatre physically aching from the tension of the film but unpacking her character was, for me, the most exciting bit.

That’s saying a lot in a plot-line involving a dystopian future in which twenty-four children are forced to fight to the death for a worldwide television reality show.

From the start, Katniss lives outside of traditional gender stereotypes. She hunts and trades to provide for her family. A potential love interest, Gale, is introduced early on but her story is in no way dependent on him.

In fact, its been suggested that gender doesn’t matter in The Hunger Games, in the sense that any of the characters could be male or female and it would not essentially change them or the plot.

The argument goes that Katniss is a feminist character not because she is female and protesting a patriarchal system but because her gender has nothing to do with the story.

This makes sense but I’m inclined to disagree. The world of The Hunger Games is patriarchal. Katniss is told repeatedly that her obstacle to standing a chance in the games is that she is not likeable. To be likeable, she must be desirable: dolled up and the object of Peeta’s affection.

It would be all too easy for the film to disempower a strong female character by forcing her to give in to being sexualised in order to survive. This is not what happens.

Though taking advantage of her beauty and playing the role of star-crossed lover where she needs to, Katniss remains focused. She relies mainly on her wit, prowess in archery and physical strength to protect herself and rescue others.

The film also could have traded her femininity for violence and aggression, making it difficult for us to access her character, but there is none of that here.

Katniss only kills in self-defence, never glories in the violence and spends most of the games running away or hiding to avoid killing or being killed.

In fact, her most subversive acts involve singing to younger girl Rue to ease her passage into death, surrounding her body with flowers, making a sign of solidarity to Rue’s district and threatening to take her own life later on instead of taking Peeta’s.

The way she relates to male characters is important too. I’ve seen her described as a girl between two boys which is both reductive and a clear misreading of her situation.

The film makes it obvious that Katniss performs her romantic affection for Peeta. Feelings beneath the surface are no doubt muddled but it is simply one of the many things she does to save both their lives.

At the film’s end, the look exchanged across the crowd between her and Gale is not one of regret, longing or accusation. We get the sense, rather, that he understands she did what she had to do to keep her promise that she would return. Both relationships are based on mutual respect.

Basically, I’m willing Hollywood to make more films like The Hunger Games, led by female protagonists like Katniss. If only the casting call for her role had also been open to actors of colour. When Talitha’s old enough to watch a 12A, these are the portrayals of femininity I want her to see.